June 25, 2018

The Problem with 401(k) Loans and Consumer Bankruptcy

Most of the clients who I represent in Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 cases view bankruptcy as their absolute last resort.  Usually, by the time they get to me, these clients have exhausted every other alternative – they have borrowed money from relatives and friends, sold possessions on eBay and cashed out or borrowed against retirement plans.

All of these choices, by the way, create unintended consequences – if you are reaching that point of desperation where you are thinking about selling things, cashing out retirement plans, etc., I would rather that you call me  before taking any action because of the risk that you might unknowingly lose some of the benefit from your bankruptcy filing, or possibly disqualify yourself altogether.

Retirement plan loans such as 401(k) loans create a variety of issues and are almost always a bad idea in a bankruptcy context.   Presumably you borrow against your 401(k) because you need cash now, you expect to repay that loan in the near term, you want to preserve your 401(k) account for the future, and because you do not want the tax consequences associated with cashing out your 401(k).

Bankruptcy trustees, however, look at 401(k) loans in a different light.   They see any allocation to repay a 401(k) loan (and sometimes any ongoing contribution to a 401(k) plan) as an unnecessary reduction of disposable income that would otherwise be available to pay creditors.    401(k) loan payments cannot be counted as allowable deductions in your means test calculations.   And both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 trustees and/or creditors will often object if you include a 401(k) loan repayment allocation in your Schedule I and J budget in either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.

Since 401(k) plan funds are generally considered “exempt” or sheltered property in a Georgia Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, your best choice often means not using your 401(k) as a last gasp source of cash.

401(k) loans and on-going 401(k) contributions do not make bankruptcy impossible, but they do complicate matters.  If you are in financial trouble and are thinking about raiding your 401(k) or retirement plan but have not done so, you should not take any action until you have spoken to a bankruptcy lawyer.   If you have already cashed out or borrowed against your 401(k), make sure that your attorney is aware of this fact.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Ginsberg represents honest, hardworking men and women in the Atlanta area who need personal bankruptcy protection. In practice for over 25 years, Jonathan teaches bankruptcy law and practice at legal continuing education seminars and he is a founding member of the Bankruptcy Law Network. Jonathan lives with his wife and children in Atlanta.


  1. Jeffgriffin says:

    Thank you for all of this advice. We are currently in a bind. People who have been officially declared bankrupt may have difficulty being approved for any type of loan or credit for a number of years afterward. Most areas have laws limiting how often a person can declare bankruptcy. Therefore, people are generally recommended to use bankruptcy only as a last resort because if new debts occur afterward, he or she may not that option available. But asking help from bankruptcy attorneys are really needed for us to overcome bankruptcy problems, give us some advices on what should the nicest thing to do.

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